Hidden Gems Photos by Bettina Monique Chavez. Top: Equator Cafe; Bottom: Kind Kreme.

Pasadena's hidden gems

Located in plazas and alleyways throughout town, these dining marvels do a bustling business without the benefit of a street front

By Sara Cardine 07/21/2011

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When it comes to dining, it’s generally fun to see and be seen. But if you’re in the mood for al fresco dining sans street traffic, you don’t have to look outside Pasadena for a place to enjoy a truly intimate and memorable meal. 
 
The city is home to a number of tucked away treasures, restaurants and cafes that do business without the advantage of a street front. Some of these unique establishments can be found inside plazas, where only urban foot-traffickers have a chance of learning their locations. Others are accessible by doors that lead up stairways to rooftop restaurants, offering diners a feast without the distractions of the passing public.
 
To hide one’s business behind walls, stairs or down alleyways may, at a glance, seem counterintuitive, but to the owners of these establishments, the location is part of the charm. 
 
“There’s less noise and less foot traffic. This means you get to sit to a nice meal without feeling the anxiety of the traffic and the crowds either surrounding you or rushing around right in plain view,” says Teddy Bedjakian, owner of the Asian fusion restaurant Equator, located in McCormick Alley off DeLacey Avenue, between Colorado Boulevard and Green Street. “When people find us, they really feel like they’ve stumbled onto some kind of secret location.”
 
Equator, 22 Mills Place, (626) 564-8656, is a place with a truly unique look and feel. The funky mix of Buddhist sculpture, feng shui and avant garde, old-master style paintings from local artist Michael Hussar create a provocative energy that is balanced by the subdued use of low and natural lighting. 
 
Booths made up of chairs and sofas with throw pillows make diners cozy as they nosh on basil mignon with black pepper sauce or spicy seared albacore tataki. Bartenders are skilled at making the restaurants many, many cocktails and concoctions and are brave enough to try new mixes if you ask them. With a new Happy Hour special every day, Equator will definitely inspire return trips.
Most people in Pasadena know that Il Fornaio Cucina Italiana as one of the area’s top places to order a fresh, authentic meal and brush up on your Italian ordering skills at the same time. But somewhat lesser known may be Il Fornaio’s Bakery and Café, 24 W. Union St., (626) 683-9797, located in Smith Alley inside the One Colorado Shopping Plaza, which serves up an impressive and satisfying lunch-on-the-run menu available daily until 5 p.m.
 
You’ll get the same Italian ingredients — imported ham, roasted turkey and bread baked fresh daily — but in a more casual, al fresco setting. You can grab a sandwich or select salad ingredients to be tossed fresh by café staff. As popular as the restaurant is, not many people know about the eatery next door, says bakery and café manager Leslie Flores.
 
“It’s intimate and private,” Flores adds. “It’s very relaxing, there’s plenty of shade and you don’t have the whole Colorado [Avenue] walking past you.”
 
Also tucked inside One Colorado is Bua Na Thai Cuisine, 696 E. Colorado Blvd., Unit 11, (626) 795-3793. Don’t let the quaintness fool you — this place offers an astonishing selection of reasonably priced dishes and gives diners the option of dining indoors or outside in the plaza.
 
 If you go inside, you’ll enjoy a cozy atmosphere of about five or six tables, set up away from the kitchen, that offer diners decent views. Depending on the hour, it can get too crowded indoors, so with outdoor café style dining if you want to sit back, relax and watch the world go by. 
 
As scenic as eating on site may be, Bua Na lets you order meals for pickup or delivery online, where you can also find coupons for free items, including the must-have Thai iced tea.
 
If you walk down Union Street from One Colorado, you will chance upon Miller Alley. Just beyond that spot, you will spot a glass door leading to a shaded stairway. You have arrived at Café Santorini, 64 West Union Street, Pasadena, (626) 564-4200. At the café, you can pick from a host of Mediterranean and Italian dishes. The highly visible and opulently decked out Rococo Room to the right of the modest entrance is the rentable banquet facility owned and operated by the café.
 
Make it to the top of the staircase, and you will have the option of dining in a cozy but exquisite indoor area or the rooftop dining space outdoors, where tables and chairs are closely arranged in a communal piazza style. 
 
Whichever you select, you will be almost completely tucked away from the view of the streets below as you nibble on fresh seafood selections, wood-fired pizzas and treats like hummus and babaghanoush (eggplant) spreads or stuffed grape leaves.
 
If you’re in the mood for a healthy and refreshing post-dinner delight or the hot weather has you feeling ice-cream sociable, consider a visit to Kind Kreme, 319 S. Arroyo Parkway, (877) 985-5463. This made from scratch vegan ice cream, which could very well convert devout dairy fans, comes in tantalizing flavors, like coconut nib chocolate chip cookie and honey vanilla.
Eco-friendly is the key term here, where even the spoons are made from compostable material, so be prepared to pay a little bit more for the kindness. Because the spot is based on the presumption of dietary restrictions (or preference) don’t be afraid to ask about ingredients, confess allergies, etc. — staff should be helpful with this.
These are but a few of Pasadena’s many hidden gems, but should give you enough reason to look beyond the major chains and perhaps take the road, or alley, less traveled on your next dining foray. n

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